Newspaper Page Text
THE OLD PROPROOM
By Charles Bloomingdale, Jr. (Karl) HATS off /gentlemen! Age, i" the person of the Past- quavers "Good morrow" to you; the old, musty, dusty proproom of the Walnut Street Theater in Phuadelphia bids you come in from the garish glare of to-day and sink in its shadows of bygone yesterdays, bids you see and touch the things that Forrest. Booth Macreadv, Kean, Charlotte Lush man, Dion Boucicault. and other giants of the stage saw and touched— yes and used in those dear, dead • lays when the drama was palmy. Hats off, gentlemen, and enter The Walnut Street heater in Phila delphia is the oldest standing play house in America. In February, 180 S. it was erected, and for one hundred and two years it has flourished. Once it stood at the outskirts of the town. then the center; now the town has grown many, many miles beyond it. But its proproom -its old proproom; for it has two now — is the same as when Pepin and Preschard opened the theater with a circus and pan tomime one hundred and two years What is a proproom? A proproom is a room for properties. And what are pr .perries.' Anything and everything, costumes excepted, used on the stage during a play. A property room looks like the average" junkshop, possibly more so. A chair is a property; so is a clock, a cane, a candle, a chain a corkscrew. And a bottle is a property too. and the forged will and the mortgage papers, a horseshoe, a feather duster, and a paper of pins. And the prop erty man of the theater has all these hundreds of seemingly inconsequential things under Ins thumb and gets them when they're needed. Half a Century in the Proproom OLD Charlie Iloffner is property man. ■ -! the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. For over fifty years he lias had charge of the properties there —the oldest property man in the United States in the oldest theater in the country. No wonder he loves the old papier mache helmets and the wooden simitars touched with silver paint that clutter up the old proproom. which long since have outlived their make believe! Grizzled and gray he is: but it's worth while having silvered hair when one has • -olden memories. Forrest and Booth and Charlotte Cushman have talked with him; so Fate cannot touch him. . . The other day he looked at his treasures in the old proproom. Frank Howe. jr.. manager of the thea ter was there too. to help Hoffner's rich memory with a vagrant date or two. Howe is a scholar, a whilom actor, a writer of short stories and plays, a musician a man whom Art has touched in many -.laces. Fitting, indeed, that he should now. in this latter day. have. charge of the playhouse, which in its over 'a century of life has numbered among its managers such people as .Mrs. I). P. Bowers. Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, and John Sleeper Clarke. . , Hoffner brushed a halt-inch of dust from some hickory stall's. ••Them's old props," he said, "that were used for most anything, mostly for the witches in Macbeth. The big one here— that one with a fork in it, like the top of the old slingshot I used to have as a boy — that big one was use.! by Charlotte Cush man in Meg Merrilies. She wanted a stick with a fork at the top so she could rest her elbow there when she spoke those two big speeches of hers. Ah!"' and .i long memory laden sigh came welling from him, she was a great and good woman, was Charlotte < "ushman ! " A wand with a silver star on it. a little wand only two feet long, caught his eye. •"One of the prettiest little girls I ever saw in my life carried that wand the first year 1 came here, 1858. 1 know that her first name was Lola, ami that she died from catching cold here. Mr-. Bowers was managing the theater then. and Edwin Forrest acted "Cams Mariu-.' written by R. Perm Smith. Then came the children's ballet in which the kid that carried this wand appeared: then a pantomime called Jealousy in the Kitchen.' We opened the doors at six-thirty in those days, and rang up at seven: had to when you had a tragedy, ballet. and pantomime all in one night. Wisht I could re member thai kid's last name! " lie said, as he laid the little star capped silver wand on a chair. A Historic Chair THAT chair's got a history." lie -aid ruminatively. •" You see it's Gothic, and has four blocks of wood under it. one on each leg. When Forrest played Hamlet with the stock company here, he sat on that chair at rehearsal. Then he gave me bally hoo; said the chair was -<« short and dumpy that his chin almost hit his knee-. So I had the stage carpenter put blocks under it to raise it from the floor. When Booth came along I had the chair down for rehearsal, and he made me take it ■way. "'Too high.' says 1. •'Wo 'says he; 'it isn't right. Ham let never sat in a Gothic chair like that He sat in a scoop chair, one with no back and shaped like the let ter U. Get a scoop chair.' "[ didn't have one: but I had it made by nightfall, and Booth sat m a scoop chair in the soliloquy scene. I think the chair's back in that cor ner " and he peered behind cobwebs and dust and scratched his head re flectively: "but 111 not sure,, he added dubiously. The Pantomimic Ravels A BIG head, three feet across from •*»• ear to ear, leered down from the rafters. The cotton batting with which it had been stuffed came through in little tufts here and there, like huge snowflakes on a Santa Clans face. But the face was not that of kindly Father Christmas. It was that of a malignant giant, re minding one of those horrible wooden grotesqueries that guard the entrance to a Chinese temple/: ; Homier nodded to the head. " That's been here a long, long time. It belonged to the Ravel family Loads of their stuff litter up the place; they left it here. The Ravels were great pantomime folks — French; three. I think, in the family. ; They had a spectacle called 'The Green Monster.' and they made one change of scene from a dingy graveyard to a beautiful ballroom that was one of the best things i ever saw. Why. it must have been in the ';*) s, when back of the stage didn't boast any of the modern helps for quick shifting: yet the way the Ravels handled those two scenes couldn't be beaten in swiftness by any of the big companies to-day, with all their modern methods of making quick changes. Yes I remember that head well," he added, grin ning up at the old mask which grinned down to him. Impatient Then as Now ADIXGY torn playbill hung on the edge of a frayed broken bricked chair. The varnish from the chair had acted as glue and pasted the remnant of the playbill there. Hoffner tore the four-inch fragment from its resting place of almost forty years: for the bill was dated Wednesday evening. Septem ber 7 1870. He read it slowly, then passed it over. Edwin Forrest was playing Othello that night: William Harris was the lago; Lewis Morrison, later of "Faust"' fame, was the Cassia There wasn't enough left of the program to tell who played Des demona; but at the top was a little note which proved that, though the world does certainly move in some directions toward betterment, vet in 1910 the aver Chark-4 Hoffner. the OIJ Property Man The Iftimiif Walnut Street Theater. Philadelphia age theatergoer hasn'l advances] >ii<- little bil from a certain custom in vogue i?t IS7O. Hark to the note printed .-it the top . >t the program the nighi thai Forresi played l>theDo! Visitors are requested tv remain seated til! the close <>i tin.- play, as the noise occasioned by the impatient lew ma»s the pleasure ol tlit- more intellectual portion of the audience thai wish t>> witness the completion ol the performance. The phrase "' impatient few* 1 is mighty good, .mil note the distinction diawu between them and the ■more intellectual portion ol the audience**! You see. one wrote himself down as a cad if he didn't wait till the show was over. Hoffner took back the torn playbill, looked at Forrest's name, and -miled. smiled m the nay thai persons d»> when :i thottghi of the loot; a*«o X — comes stealing into the brain of to-day an.! tdls th* eyes solhev light a bit and the mouth so the corners droop into a smile that is nearly all wisttulness. Memories, after all. are only old thought? in new sup, r °" T }lo'w well 1 remember Forrest!" he said. 'Wha; a man he was, hi. heart as big a* Ins voice, yet stem ,nd a very fiend for discipline! In those early days there was a rehearsal every day at ten o'clock, u m f rf anyone came in at one minute after ten -..,. would carry on as if everyone of the ten command ments was' broken. And, apart from his ideas . punctuality, he was particular about rehearsafe; no mumbling" ol the lines, no perfunctory gestures. Everything must ■■>■ done it rehearsal lust .- it Was to be* done at the performance that night "My! don't I remember the dressing down he gave me one morning! " "He was rehearsing old Dr. Bird s play ot 'The Gladiator ' and I had a new set of chains made .. - r handcuffs' which Forrest snapper! on as he wen: on stage I went on stage right back of him— and he topi ed short in the middle of a speech. He looked at me in a way that made my knees knock together. and then fairly yelled at me. 'flow dare you corr* on this stage during a rehearsal .' How dare yon p ut your foot on it.'' "I swear that be terrified me so 1 couldn't op ra mv mouth; or rather I couldn't close it. for mr mouth was so wide open ' must have looked v, him as if I was going to die of fright the next second. f •■ He took one step toward me and shook me by th c shoulders. 'Did you hear me ' he thundered. "Then I got my breath. 'These are new hand cuffs,' I stammered, 'and I want to show the fro soldiers here how to take them off of you. If I didn't show them, you'd be walking around all day and all to-night with the chains on you. That's why I came on stage.' . S^B •"Well, show them, and get ml the wings quick!' he -aid. 'Show me too.' he added, incase they forget to-night. Then off stage with yot:— and' be quick about it too!' "Great heavens! what a voice he had. It was ter rible more like the rolling of thunder than anything I can think of. But be could be tender .too. conld Forrest and th^n his voice was like a flute. I'll never forget to my last day Forrest's acting in the closet scene of 'Hamlet.' Remember it? It's the scene with the Queen mother ' Look on thi- picture and on that* — speech. Well, I've seen : the great actors play 'Hamlet,' I've .seen it played three or four hundred times: but over and over ag.iin I've quit what 1 was doing behind the scenes and -to<>d in the wings to hear Forrest in the closet >cene. It was the most wonderful, most beautiful, rinot acting. I ever saw or. ever expect to see. To hear Forrest speak the lines in the closet scene you'd never think be had a voice thai could .-hake a theate r. Hi> voice was oft and tender as a woman's: and I -aw mure than one actress, who was playing the Ortrcri. break down in that scene and cry real tear-. They just couldn't help it.". The Cradle of Geniu> ggj IIX >VT ink Hoffnef knows that Forrest tßadnras * first professional •■■•■ nee in this theater." »ai<l Manager Howe; "for the date was considerably £»■- .-.. Hoffner's time. Bo! from the record- in sxv . .triee — and. by the way. they're locked in the" desk that Char lotte i ■: . man own and u.-<cl when she managed the Walnut in IS l:i— from the records there Forrest made hi> firr-t appear ance on any sta^e at the Wa! • ■■• on the night of November _. ISUO. He appeal a> Young .\"..rval in '.>... •' Edmund Kean made his ■■'■•■ appearance at the Walnut on December i of the same year. In tact, the Walnut has been the cr.uile oi many an actor's creeping 'jenias and the birthplace of many dramas that became famous. Verdi's music was first heanJin America at the Wainu: : J« >seph '■■■••■ hi> first Phila delphia appearance a- Rip Van Winkle here: Mary Anderson's Philadelphia debut was .it the Walnut. And theoldtime actors and actresses wh<». by reason <•£ the things they*\ c tr»nche»l :ind used, which now fin up this old proprooin tv ■•■■•:•: well, in ad dition to those to whom Hoffner ha^ paid tribute. I can mention Macready. McCullough. Edwin Adams. James Hackett (father of the present star. E. L. I'avenport.1 'avenport. Lawrence Barrett. Modjeska. Rhea, Ade laide Xeilson. Fanny Davenport. John T. Raymond. W.J. Florence, J. K. Emmett. John S.Clarke. Mavjjpe Mitchell. Annie Pixley. Lotta — well, almost every actor and actress of prominence in the I.t~* one hun dred years. In little things, perhaps, they have left their impress on this «>ld dusty room.*! * When Perry Couldn't Appear IJOFFXER'S eyes were roving. " See that >pinnin^ 11 wheel?" he asked. "" We used that in " Faust." [. B. Roberts played Mephisto. and I think it -.i- I'